Lying on my kitchen counter is an instrument that was produced by the hard work of over five million men and women. A marvel of international cooperation, its components come from dozens of countries. It is one of the most important tools used in educating my children, but still part of my life as an adult. Surprisingly, it is ridiculously inexpensive. You can buy ten for a dollar, but if you’re willing to buy in bulk, you can get them for a few pennies each.
The tool is a No. 2 pencil.
Where does my pencil come from? Did five million people really work on producing it? Let’s walk through the production of the humble No. 2 pencil, the most common pencil in the world (not to be confused with his superior, but also slightly aloof older brother, the No.3).
The No.2 pencil is made with cedar wood. While only G-d can make a cedar tree grow, humans first plant the cedar seedlings. Fast forward a few years and a logging crew comes to cut that cedar tree. The loggers are supported by onsite food crews, cooking food that was cultivated by farmers all around the US. Both the farmers and the loggers use machines. Those machines are mostly made of steel.
Steel is produced from taconite, an iron bearing sedimentary rock. That rock is blasted from the ground using dynamite, the iron ore is removed using massive magnets, then crushed into marble sized iron ore pellets, super-heated using coke (pure carbon) coals, to produce molten steel which is then refined and cut.
The coke is mined from the ground and finished in its own factory. The dynamite and magnets are produced in other factories. We could get into the production of coal, dynamite, magnets, or steel which is fascinating in its own right, but I think that No.2 might get jealous of us turning our focus away from him for so long. Suffice it to say, that the logger’s chain saw, the cook’s food truck at the logging site, as well as the massive haulers and loaders that take the logs away, are all incredibly complex items made mostly of steel, whose production requires many tens of thousands of people each. Turning that steel into a chain saw or food truck, or extracting and refining the gas that powers them also requires the work of tens of thousands of people as well. But back to No.2.
(Wait! I’m sorry No.2, we will get back to you soon, but please pause for a moment and think about how many tens of thousands of people are involved in simply getting the logger a fresh cup of Columbian coffee so that he has the energy to get out there and log all day!)
Cedar is used in the production of pencils because of its nice aroma (the smell of a freshly sharpened pencil… brings back warm memories of second grade!) and its uniform sharpening. The cedar logs are then transported by truck to railroad lines that transport the cedar to the factories. Think about how many people were involved in building the trucks, the roads they traveled on, laid the railroad tracks, or build the locomotives, and the flat bed cars that carried the logs. As you can see, millions of people were involved in just getting the cedar logs to the pencil factory.
At the factory, specialized machines cut the cedar into slats less than one fourth of an inch thick, and just a bit longer than No.2. These slats are dried in a kiln at over 1,800 degrees so that they will be dry and uniform. The cedar is also dyed, who wants a white, fleshy looking pencil? We want out pencils to have a reddish tinged wood, so No.2. gets some makeup. Where does that dye come from? More people. Who makes the kiln? More people. Who built the hydroelectric dam that powers the factory? More people. Who built the factory? More people. Who made the bricks to build the factory? I’m gonna let you answer that one, I have faith in you!
After being dried and dyed, the slats are cut with eight super thin grooves into which the lead center is placed. Then another slat is fitted on top of it, creating a sandwich, with cedar slat on top, eight leads in the center, and cedar slat on top. This sandwich is cut into eight pencils, in either round or hexagon shape. Most pencils, No.2 included, are made hexagonal so that they don’t roll off every elementary school student’s desk. Drawing pencils, used by more skilled artisans are usually round.
But wait! Did I say lead in the center? That would be highly dangerous! Having lead in the center of school children’s pencils, would be like drinking the water in Flint! The center of a pencil actually has no lead in it! The reason we call the pencil core “lead” is because in ancient Egypt and Greece, people would use a writing instrument called a stylus or pencillus, and those were made of lead. So what is the black stuff in my pencil? It is a combination of graphene and clay, mixed with ammonium hydroxide to ensure smoothness.
The graphene, which is a pure carbon product, is mined in Sri Lanka, and shipped by boat and rail to the pencil factory. Think about how many people were involved in making those massive freighter ships, or even the strong paper sacks that store hundreds of pounds of graphene. Think about the people who built the navigation systems for those freighters, or the longshoremen who unloaded the boat.
The graphene is ground into powder, mixed with water, and spun in massive mixing drums for 24 hours to smooth it out, then dried in cakes for 48 hours, after which they are mixed with water again and made into a slurry. Here the clay and ammonium hydroxide are added. The clay comes from Mississippi, and frankly, I’m not sure what goes on down there, but you can use your imagination. Of course none of you want to produce ammonium hydroxide for your next science project, so we’ll let the experts do that, and thankfully there are a lot of experts in chemical production (hired by HR workers, in companies with CEOs, fork lift operators, janitors, shipping departments, and teams of suited finance guys working on reports for the shareholders). At this point, wetting agents are added, including sulfonated tallow, animal fats chemically reacted with sulfuric acid. To increase their strength and smoothness the leads are then treated with a hot mixture which includes candelilla wax from Mexico, paraffin wax, and hydrogenated natural fats. More people…
In case you were wondering, it is at this point that No.2 and No.3 are separated from each other. The number of your pencil is a measure of the hardness of the graphene core. The No.1 is so soft that it smudges way too much. The No.3 is much harder, and leaves a slightly lighter mark, but doesn’t smudge much. The problem with No.3 is that it doesn’t get picked up easily by the automatic scanners that grade standardized tests. Hence No.2 became the most common pencil in schools around the country.
So now you have a pencil made of cedar wood and the graphene core, but it doesn’t look so pretty. The beautiful yellow color of No.2 is achieved by six to ten layers of lacquer applied to its body. What goes into the lacquer? That would take a while, but castor oil is a big part of it, and do you know where castor oil comes from? Castor beans, the beans you never heard of! More people.
The black lettering is then applied using a film made by mixing carbon black with resins. I’m going to save you the bother, but trust me, more people. Let’s not forget about the eraser. The eraser is attached to the pencil by the ferrule, the name for that shiny piece of brass. Brass, as I’m sure you know is a metal alloy made by combining copper and zinc. Lots of more people.
And all the way at the top is the eraser. Originally made from natural rubber, but now usually from cheaper synthetic rubber, the eraser contains mineral fillers and an abrasive such as pumice with a plasticizer such as vegetable oil. More people. Finally No.2 is complete. Now he only needs to get packaged in cardboard, wrapped in cellophane, boxed, and shipped to the local Office Depot, where you can buy him and nine of his siblings for one dollar.
We live in a global economy, where almost everything we buy was created through the joint efforts of millions of people. Consumer products, no matter how simple they appear, are nothing close to simple. Yet, we can walk into a Walmart and for less than one hundred dollars fill our cart with products that are the culmination of the labor of tens of millions of people. And this all flies way below our radar; as we hurry out of Walmart, our thoughts have already turned to whether our dry cleaning is ready yet, what we should have for dinner, and slight irritation that macaroni is now $1.19 a box and no longer 99 cents. As C.K. Chesterson said, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”
The Sages tell us that we should walk around with a sense of wonderment at the incredible industriousness that people put forth to give us the products we love and need. The Talmud teaches the following (Berachos 58A):
Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on the steps of the Temple Mount. He said, “Blessed
is He that discerns secrets, and blessed is He who has created all these to serve me.” [For] he used to say: What labors Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound [the sheaves], he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground [them], and sifted [the flour], he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me. And how many labors Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash [the wool], comb it, spin it and weave it, and then at last he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and I rise in the morning and find all these before me.
The fact that we can obtain an endless amount of good with almost zero effort, should fill us with appreciation to mankind, and deep gratitude to G-d for creating mankind with the wisdom to manufacture everything it does with such efficiency. When we view the mass of humanity as being there to help us, we have a little bit more time to hold the door for the guy hurrying into the office building behind us, he may be the guy ordering the graphene for my pencils from Sri Lanka, he may be the guy working for a mortgage company so that I can buy a house despite not having nearly enough money to pay for it. It gives us a little bit more patience when waiting in traffic. Sure I have to crawl along the highway at tortoise speed, but all the people around me are on their way to help me. They are all productive members of the global economy which gives me so much and so cheaply!
Inflation is rising across the globe, and while they tell us that it is at 7% which is higher than anything many of us have ever seen, it still seems to be higher than that. It feels like every time we go shopping, we find more products that are more expensive by 30-40%. It is obviously difficult to see these price increases, but keeping this perspective in mind can change how we feel about inflation. We don’t need to like it, but we can recognize that what we were used to in the past, an almost infinite amount of products available for ridiculously low prices based on a global supply chain that was fragile and overtaxed even before the pandemic, was an extraordinary anomaly in world history, and one we need to be thankful to have lived through.
If only we could have Ben Zoma’s perspective with us at all times, we would be such thankful consumers. We couldn’t thank the checkout clerk at Walmart enough, “You’re letting me have all these things for $56.31? No way! Can I give you a tip? Thanks so much!” We would be so enormously appreciative to the person who serves us a coffee at Dunkin Donuts for just $1.76 (oops, they just raised it to 2.19!) despite the beans coming from Columbia and the flavorings coming from a chemical plant in the Netherlands! We couldn’t thank the dry cleaning lady enough, nor the tollbooth operator, the shoe store salesman, the postal lady, and most importantly, the checkout guy at Office Depot who sells me No.2 with nine of his siblings for ninety nine cents.
“We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha, Vayakel, we read about the actual building of the Tabernacle and the vessels that were in it (in Parshat Terumah we only read about the instructions, here we read about them being done.) The Torah tells us that there was a copper vessel that was filled with water (called a laver) and was used by the Kohanim, the priests, to wash their hands and feet as they came in to serve in the Tabernacle. It was made of copper from a peculiar source. “He made the laver of copper and its base copper, from the mirrors of the multitudes of massed at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” (Exodus, 38:8) Rashi explains that many women came forward and donated even their mirrors, an item normally coveted by women in those days. These donations were used for the laver. Why were they used specifically for that vessel?
The Maggid of Mezeritch used to say that we should use other people as mirrors. When we look at ourselves we barely see anything wrong with ourselves. The best way to know our deficiencies is to look at what deficiencies we see in others. That is usually a very accurate measure of what we need to work on. In this sense, we are using others as a mirror, as they reflect back to us the issues we need to work on.
The priest’s job in the Tabernacle was to help bring people closer to G-d, to help them atone for their sins. A priest could hypothetically spend his entire day helping people bring sin-offerings, which could give a person a “holier-than-thou” feeling. For this reason, every day as the priests walked in to start their service they washed their hands and feet with a laver made out of mirrors. This was to remind them that whatever negativity they see in others throughout the course of the day, is a reflection of something in them.
Today, we don’t have a Tabernacle, we don’t have a laver, and we don’t have sacrifices, but we sure do have lots of mirrors!
Vayakel begins with Moshe gathering all the Jewish people and telling them about the laws of Shabbat. Moshegoes on to tell them about the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. (In the previous portions, Teruma andTitzaveh, Ha-shem commanded Moshe about the building of the Mishkan; now Moshe tells the people, and the people actually build it.) The two concepts are connected in that one is not allowed to desecrate Shabbos for the purpose of building the Mishkan. We don’t break G-d’s special time (Shabbos) to build Him a special place (the Mishkan); it would defeat the purpose.
The Torah describes the donations needed which included gold, silver, and copper (these were the days before titanium-palladium alloys were all the rage), the different colored wools, goat skins, herbs, spices, and, most important, the volunteering of time by the craftsmen to build the Mishkan. (I’m assuming hat with the entire nation stuck in the desert, and unemployment running close to 100%, it wasn’t too difficult to get volunteers!) Two people were appointed to be the managers of this colossal and divine endeavor, Betzalel, from the tribe Yehuda, which was considered the most royal of the tribes, and Oholiab, from Dan, which was considered the lowliest of the tribes, thus indicating that when it comes to building a dwelling place for G-d, everyone is equal.
The Parsha then describes in detail the making of the curtains, covering cloths, partitions, and walls of the Tabernacle. Next it depicts the creation of the Holy Ark with its cover, the Table, the Menorah, the Incense Altar, the outdoor Offering Altar, the Laver (a special vessel used by the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet before Temple service), and the courtyard posts which had cloth sheets that wrapped around them, used to enclose the Temple courtyard. By the end of Vayakel, the entire Tabernacle is built.
This Shabbos, being the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Adar II, is Shabbos Shekalim. We will take an additional Torah scroll from the ark, and read about the commandment to the Jews to give the Half-shekel. In Temple times, every Jew would give a half-shekel annually to the Temple, and the combined money was used for all the communal sacrificed, which gave everyone the opportunity to be a part supporter of all the communal sacrifices. They would begin collecting the half-shekels in the month of Adar, and that is why we read this special parsha the Shabbos before Adar begins! That’s all Folks!
Quote of the Week- Those who dance are thought to be quite insane by those who cannot hear the music.- Angela Monet
Random Fact of the Week: It takes 16,550 kernels of durum wheat to make a pound of pasta.
Funny Line of the Week: Cross country skiing is great, if you live in a small country!
Have a Superliscious Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham